When the Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm visited the American colonies in 1748 to find seeds useful for agriculture, he called it a place where “a newly married man can, without difficulty, get a spot of ground where he may comfortably subsist with his wife and children,” and “the liberties he enjoys are so great that he considers himself a prince of his possessions.”
Kalm’s observations of the colonists’ liberties and culture came 28 years before the Continental Congress wrote and approved the Declaration of Independence, and his thoughts were neither wrong nor unique for the time.
Colonial America was novel in that, generally, the people who worked the land, owned the land. (The stain of slavery in the southern colonies was obviously a big exception.) Nowhere else in the world could boast this, and it helped form the foundation for the unique appreciation – need, even – for freedom and independence among colonists. As Kalm and plenty of others observed, America was different. When their British rulers levied various new taxes from London and insisted on crushing resistance in the colonies, citizens feared they would be returned to the serfdom that pervaded the old world.
When we examine the Declaration of Independence – the document forming the birthday that we’ll celebrate Sunday – we often do so through a media and popular culture filter that explains it as the grand ideas of a few men. Certainly Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and others deserve a great deal of credit. But to accept that only their ideas exist in the words of the Declaration is to miss the context of the era.
Examples of this missed context are everywhere. In a recent History Channel documentary discussing the Declaration, one of the celebrity commentators says of Jefferson’s preamble to the document that it was, “the first time anybody had bothered to write that down.” An Air Force commander this week, in writing about the appreciation for our nation’s founding, said of the founding fathers, “It was their courage and desire for freedom that inspired their declaration of independence....”
Both statements are well-intended. But were the leaders, like Jefferson, going out in front of the people and prescribing an edict of what the country would be? Or were they in an official document, echoing the sentiments of a people who insisted on independence to preserve their liberty?
In her excellent book on the forming of the Declaration, “American Scripture,” historian Pauline Maier writes of more than 90 declarations of independence passed by colonial assemblies, towns, and even private organizations in the months and days before July 4, 1776. Of Jefferson’s prose in the Declaration, she writes “The sentiments Jefferson eloquently expressed were, in short, absolutely conventional among Americans of his time.” [Editor's note: The original article wrongly implied that local declarations were being made years before 1776.]
The ideas and beliefs expressed in the Declaration cannot solely be attributed to the buzz of independence among American colonists, either. They are ideas that had been debated for years in the colonies that came from some of the great English advocates of freedom like John Locke and Cato’s letters. As Ms. Maier recently told some of my colleagues at Sam Adams Alliance, “Jefferson just took those and summarized them in a very effective rhetorical mode.”
It is true that Jefferson, with assistance from John Adams and Franklin, captured these ideas with historic clarity. But he was writing for America, not to America. In 1825 he said of the Declaration, “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
So what does this all mean? It certainly does not mean that the Declaration is any less important, or that the Founders were any less visionary a group of men. American liberty was a creation of the American people, who crossed the Atlantic and were determined not to have European tyranny follow them across the ocean. The Declaration announced the fact of American liberty and the news of American independence to the world. The Founders did not create America; America created the Founders.
This history is especially poignant today, where there is another big political fight over the nature of government in America. Whatever you think of legislation like bailouts, the so-called stimulus, and our new health care law, these laws were passed over the objections of a majority of the American people. We can scarcely say that our representatives today are “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” as the Declaration prescribes. In fact, a recent Rasmussen poll showed that only 21 percent of Americans believe that the federal government is living up to this clause.
As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July, we should honor the brilliant leadership of our founding fathers. But more importantly, we should remember that these great men were called to their places by a broad, free population, eager to defend their liberty.
Eric O’Keefe is Chairman of Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based non-profit that supports citizen activism and responsible government.
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